Demonstrating a solar kit Demonstrating a solar kit Photo credit: HelpAge
Ending isolation: solar solutions in Haiti
by Jemima Jewell, ToughStuff September 2011

The Haitian earthquake in 2010 displaced thousands of people, forcing them into overcrowded spontaneous settlements. Women and girls in particular are at risk of violence in the camps, including sexual violence. This is a huge problem.In the first two months after the earthquake, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV)+The Commission of Women Victims for Victims (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim, or KOFAVIV ) was set up in late 2004 by a group of rape victims to empower poor women and advocate on their behalf. logged 230 incidents of rape in just 15 camps in Port?au?Prince. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported 68 cases of rape in one month (April) at just one of its clinics in Port?au?Prince. The actual figures are likely to be substantially higher given significant under-reporting.

A lack of adequate lighting is an important factor in the high rates of sexual violence women and girls face in Haiti’s camps, and is consistently cited as a source of insecurity. In Delmas 14, for example, one of the calmer camps in Haiti, teenage girls surveyed by the UN Stabilisation Mission (MINUSTAH) said that they were afraid to use latrines at night because of the lack of lighting.

Light, security and safety

HelpAge International distributed 5,500 ToughStuff emergency kits in 12 districts. The kits included a solar panel to charge an LED lamp, which could be used both inside shelters and as a torch. Three months after the distribution, HelpAge conducted an evaluation with 499 (around 9%) of the beneficiaries.+Respondents were from the following earthquake-affected areas: Croix-des-Bouquets, Tabarre, Petion-Ville, Delmas, Carrefour and Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince, and the provincial towns of Gressier, Léogane, Grand-Goâve, Petit-Goâve and Jacmel. Of the respondents 166 were male and 333 female. The results were very encouraging, with three-quarters of respondents saying that having a light on at night made them feel more secure. Similar projects by other agencies support this finding. Elimene Dieujust, a recipient of a solar light provided by Concern, reported that ‘Now that we have a light that will always work, in case there are any aggressive men in the area, I feel secure. It feels safer for me, my grandchildren and my daughter … I can look after myself because I can see now’.+Haiti Emergency Response: Distribution of 2000 ToughStuff solar panels with Battery LED Light and Mobile Phone Connectors and Radio Connectors – Final Report’, Concern Worldwide and Geneva Global, 2010. In cramped, flammable dwellings solar light is also much safer than traditional sources of light, such as kerosene and candles, and cheaper. HelpAge recipients reported a 91% reduction in spending on kerosene, and an 80% reduction in spending on candles.

Phones, radios and connectivity

The phenomenal power of mobile phones in connecting people and reducing isolation is familiar to everyone. Whether sharing information, keeping in touch with remote family or enabling individuals to access vital services such as mobile banking, the impact of mobiles is well-documented. Their specific potential in disaster relief situations is increasingly acknowledged. Yet without a way to charge them, phones can be rendered useless.

The solar panel in the kits distributed by HelpAge in Haiti was also able to charge common mobile phones via a set of phone connectors. As well as helping increase people’s connectivity generally, this also supported a HelpAge cash transfer project via a mobile banking facility. Up to $3 of the $17 transferred to beneficiaries every month could be wasted on charging. Instead, beneficiaries were provided with a free means of phone charging, maximising the impact of the cash transfer.

Radios and radio connectors (to replace traditional batteries) powered by the same solar panel were another component of the HelpAge kit. Some 92% of recipients said that the radio helped them keep in touch with what was happening in the country and get some entertainment, especially during the evening – not least the dedicated radio show by HelpAge, broadcast in Creole on Radio Soleil. The programme included older people’s stories and reminiscences, as well as health information and advice on how to help and support older people. One recipient, Hurbain Julien said: ‘We can use our radio whenever we want … and we don’t have to buy batteries for it … The news on the radio, good or bad, is important. I like knowing about what is happening in the country’. The HelpAge impact survey found that 39% of the recipients who saved money by using the radio connectors reported a 77% reduction in the quantity of D-cell batteries bought.

The road to recovery

Solar-powered products help to combat the intense isolation that people can feel in the aftermath of a disaster. Lamps provide security and phones and radios connect people with vital services and information. But solar solutions are not just a short-term fix. The long-term benefits of access to clean energy are well-known and equally applicable in IDP camps. In addition to the health benefits (reduced respiratory illness because of smoke inhalation, and lower risk of burns) and the environmental benefits, their contribution to economic recovery should not be overlooked. Along with the direct savings on candles, kerosene and batteries, over a third of HelpAge recipients found a way to earn an income using their kit, often by renting out lamps or charging mobile phones for the local community. The additional productive hours at the end of the day, which lamp light made possible, were also important in helping informal businesses to prosper.

A valuable addition for non-food kits

A Concern Worldwide survey of solar kit recipients concludes that ‘in a package that included a number of essential household and hygiene items … the solar kit was clearly perceived as the most valuable item’. The HelpAge impact survey found that, three months after receiving them, 95% of people still owned their solar set. Given the lack of cash people had, if they had not found the solar kits useful they would have already sold them, especially as 55% said that friends and neighbours were asking where they could buy the kits.

A clear overarching recommendation from the HelpAge assessment and a number of other studies is the need to consider solar energy kits as part of standard non-food item distributions. MINUSTAH’s Joint Security Assessment report for Haiti from March 2010 recommended the distribution of radio and flashlights, and that every IDP camp with over 100 residents should have adequate lighting. Concern Worldwide’s distribution team in Haiti recommended that, when possible, solar kits should be included in all NFI distributions.

More specifically, the HelpAge impact assessment team concluded that:

  • Solar kits should ideally include a carrying case or other form of protection, so that people can take the kits with them when they leave their tents.
  • Distributions of solar items should focus on areas where there are tents, as candles and kerosene lamps have caused several fires in tents, and it is evident that the use of a solar light has decreased the risk.
  • The vast majority of respondents – 88% – of respondents reported receiving a connector able to charge their phone.  In the future, all kits should include a variety of low-cost phone connectors, to maximise the chances of matching the beneficiaries’ phone. If possible, beneficiaries should be asked to come to the distribution with their phones to ensure that connectors are compatible.
  • Savings were not as high as anticipated as recipients who had been able to access a mains socket before continued to do so. In areas where electricity may be available for part of the day, it makes sense to include in the kit the means to charge solar items using mains electricity as well.

The livelihoods potential of solar energy is an interesting area for further study. Using solar kits to generate income could be supplemented with more formal entrepreneurial support, both as a means of increasing cash income but also to increase access to these products for people who may not benefit directly from a distribution programme. Programmes of this kind are well-established in stable environments, and their potential and applicability in post-disaster situations is surely worth exploring.

Jemima Jewell previously worked at ToughStuff, a privately funded social enterprise company.